Why Am I Bad at Taking Tests?

Whether you’re a parent or a student, you may be troubled by the gap between performance in the classroom and on standardized tests.  What causes this gap?  How common is it? It is my impression that a majority of students do significantly better in the classroom than they do on standardized tests.  I’ve worked in the test prep industry for more than 30 years and I hear these complaints from parents and students all the time.  The cause of this disparity is really quite simple.  Success in the classroom depends on different skills than success on standardized tests.  In particular, teachers’ tests are significantly different from standardized tests.  They are different “games” that require a different set of strategies to be successful.  So, game plans must be different.

In my experience, when students miss a math problem on a standardized test, they usually know the required math; they just don’t know how to use their knowledge the way the test writer challenged them to apply it.  The math they are learning in the classroom is important and necessary; it just isn’t always sufficient to answer the questions on standardized tests.  Test writers are often tricky, and they present word problems in new, unexpected, and confusing ways.  The good news is that students can learn to think like the test writers and demystify word problems, which improves their performance.

Think about standardized reading tests.  Didn’t it seem like two (or maybe even three) answer choices seemed right?  That’s because test writers are skilled in developing “distractors” – answers that seem correct.  Remember, on reading tests, there are no right answers – only “best” answers.  The test writers create the question, the possible answers, and get to determine the “best” answer.  Clearly, the test writer has all the power.  However, test writers must follow prescribed, written rules to identify the “best” answer.  Students can learn and use these parameters when they take a standardized test to help them find the “best” answer!  That changes them from being test naïve to test savvy as they master test writer techniques for developing the “tricky” answers!

Let’s take a side trip to discuss the test-savvy concept.  Although a majority of students underperform on standardized tests when compared to their classroom performance, other students perform better on standardized tests than they do in the classroom.  I think they’re a small percent of the population, perhaps 5%.  Some were born with the strategic, analytical skills required on standardized tests and some may have had their skills enhanced by enriching activities like playing games requiring analytical skills and extensive recreational reading.

I have interviewed many test savvy people; some were people who scored in the top 5% on the SAT or ACT and applied to teach for me.  Others were teachers at my training seminars.  I am test savvy as well and I thought everyone thought about these test questions the way I did.  It wasn’t until I observed students in my classrooms that I realized not everyone approached test questions in a test-savvy way.  Based on my conversations with other test-savvy people, my experiences training test-naïve students, and my knowledge working as a test writer for the Educational Testing Service, I designed and published materials to help test-naïve students become test savvy.

I began introducing this powerful approach to teachers and students in 1995.  Since then,  tens of thousands of students have benefitted.  Their improved scores have been documented by elementary, middle, and high schools.  The data show that significant improvements can be made not only on state and local tests but also on national tests like the SAT and ACT.

This blog will focus on understanding standardized tests and the strategic thinking required to become test savvy.  Each post will discuss an element from our book, Becoming Test Savvy, which you can find on Amazon.  I invite you to join and bring your friends on a fascinating, insider’s investigation of standardized tests and learn strategies that show how to become test savvy.

I also stream my Be Test Savvy podcast at 1:00pm on Sunday afternoons when we’ll be discussing many of these topics in more depth.  Bring a friend and I hope to see you there.


30 years’ experience in test prep

Education consultant on test score improvement for schools

Author of numerous test prep books

Kaplan Center Director for 4 years

Certifications in biology, teaching and school administration

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What is “Test-Savvy” Anyway?

I had a conversation with a former student the other day that reminded me what “Being Test Savvy” is all about.&nbs

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